Now It's Personal

by , Nov 30, 2007, 3:01 PM
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This week, we take a step back from our usual Q&A with innovators and thinkers in behavioral targeting to look at behaviors more broadly defined.

In just the last two years, consumers have been awash in new digital platforms, from social networking to Web applications, mobile connectivity to video-on-demand. But how are users really embracing these formats? Is the technology driving new kinds of online behavior that all marketers need to watch more carefully?

For example, a recent Advertising.com survey of online video usage showed a radical shift in usage patterns just between the last six months of 2006 and the first half of 2007. In the coveted 18- to 34-year-old young adult demo, 51% of connected consumers accessed TV episodes online, compared to 33% six months prior. Likewise the audience for movie trailers rocketed from 19% to 32%, and user-generated video from 28% to 42%. Historically, one of the last times we saw people respond to an emerging platform this quickly was with TV itself, which achieved a 50%+ reach in the U.S. in less than five years in the early 1950s.

Avenue A/ Razorfish Digital recently published a "Digital Consumer Behavior Study," which queried consumer use of new platforms with equally striking results. Onliners are responding very quickly to new technologies, and it is having a demonstrable effect on the media they consume. The uptake of RSS (real simple syndication) has been accelerated substantially by Yahoo and Google personalized home pages, which make it easy to drag and drop new content feeds onto a start-up page without the user even knowing they are using RSS. In its sample of 475 respondents, Avenue A found that 56% subscribe to RSS. Only a year or two ago, most industry sources pegged RSS usage at well below 20%. Like online video, the new platform has taken a fast track with users. The survey shows that 52% of user find RSS useful "most" (38%) or "all" (14%) of the time.

The net effect of having so many information outlets available in a single place has been a remarkable fragmentation of media consumption into personalized collections of niche programming. Not only have about 60% of users created customized home pages of feeds and widgets, but 70% read blogs regularly and 46% read four to five blogs. A staggering 67% of Web surfers are watching video on YouTube and other video aggregators. It is hard to believe that such high levels of personalized media aggregation are not cutting substantially into the mindshare consumers devote to major media. In fact, the survey found 91% of connected consumers agreeing that they rely on the Web for current news and information more than television.

The days of mass retailing may be numbered as well. Just as the taste for media content is diffusing quickly, so has the top end of the purchase funnel widened. A clear majority of online product researchers, (54%) start with general search, while only 30% go to retailer Web sites or even e-commerce specialists like Amazon. Only 17% say they actively seek out online retailers that have brick and mortar presence as well. Just as striking is the power of word of mouth online, with 61% reporting that they have made a purchase decision based on a user-generated review or product recommendation. The media eco-system that supports the product buying process is also under pressure by media fragmentation. Interactivity doesn't just decentralize media but also diffuses authority. When researching online, 55% say they consult user reviews vs. 21% who rely most on expert reviews. The age of the predictable and well-defined purchase funnel could be over.

Despite accelerated adoption of certain Web 2.0 platforms, consumers are keeping some technologies at arm's length for now. Tag clouds, for instance, attract only 12% of surfers with any regularity, and 65% say they never use them. And for all the hype and attention spent on mobile, 64% never use their phone to check news, sports or stock headlines.

While conventional wisdom suggests that technology transforms culture and behaviors, history demonstrates just the opposite. Despite immediate fascination with motion pictures, it took film and their middle class audiences almost two decades to find one another in the early part of this century. Television was technically feasible by 1937 (CBS had an experimental programming studio in the '30s). But the medium did not match the cultural moment until the post-WWII age of mass consumption, suburban lifestyles and nuclear families. Some technologies like the video phone (World's Fair, 1964) never moved our habits an inch even in decades of false starts.

Likewise, the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the last few years is impressive but still selective. We embrace those aspects of social networking, recommendation engines, and fragmented media distribution that fit the cultural moment and enable other tendencies in the culture. Behavior and technology change one another. In this case, the trajectory clearly aims towards personalization, both of media production and consumption.

Digital behavior is showing what futurists have been telling us for several years. Mass media is history. Turn the page to the next chapter.

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